Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Toshio Masuda, 1967)

Perhaps overlooked in comparison with his better known contemporaries, Toshio Masuda was a bankable talent at Nikkatsu directing some of the studio’s biggest box office hits largely thanks to his long association with tentpole star Yujiro Ishihara. Nine years on from their collaborative debut Rusty Knife, however, times had perhaps begun to change. Featuring vibrant colour production design by Tokyo Drifter’s Takeo Kimura, a frequent Seijun Suzuki collaborator, 1967’s Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Kurenai no Nagareboshi, AKA Like a Shooting Star) is a reworking of Masuda’s own Red Pier, itself inspired by Julien Duvivier’s 1937 French thriller Pepé le Moko, with Tetsuya Watari in the role originally filled by Ishihara. Apparently drawing inspiration from Godard’s Breathless, Velvet Hustler is a thoroughly post-modern retake, a parodic tale of gangster ennui and post-war emptiness in which rising economic prosperity has brought with it only despair. 

When we first meet petty gangster Goro (Tetsuya Watari), he’s coolly standing by, leaning on a fencepost like a bored gunslinger as he waits for the perfect getaway vehicle. Jumping into a fancy red convertible which it seems has already been stolen by the young man who parked it in this packed car park, the wires handily hanging striped and exposed, Goro barrels along the highway and and performs an infinitely efficient drive-by shooting on a rival gang boss. According to the man who hired him, Goro was only supposed to cause serious injury, not death, but as he points out if the guy insists on dying that’s hardly his problem. Taking his paycheque, Goro agrees to lie low in Kobe for the next six months after which his boss will come and get him. A year later, however, and he’s still there doing not much of anything, hanging out with the local kids and acting as a procurer dragging sailors on shore leave into gang-run clubs where Americans get into fights with Vietnamese émigrés. So desperate for escape are they that Goro’s underling even suggests they go to war, later thinking better of it when he remembers seeing horrific photos from the front.  

In a convenient but unsatisfying relationship with bar hostess Yukari (Kayo Matsuo), Goro explains that it’s not that he doesn’t like her, but he’s bored, “bored with fooling around with women”, but also of the business of living. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and then it comes up again, every day all the same. His life has become completely meaningless and he has no idea what to do about it. He longs to go back to Tokyo, but is trapped in this strange Kobe limbo land, an end of the line sea port in which there is ironically no sense of escape. He doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a killer (Jo Shishido) on his trail, a killer who eventually reminds Goro that even if he kills him first another man will come. The bullets you fire are aimed squarely at yourself, Goro’s destiny is already set. There is only one way out of Kobe and it doesn’t lead back to Tokyo. 

Meanwhile, another possibility presents itself in the beautiful Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a temporary visitor from the capital looking for her missing fiancé presumed to have done a bunk with her father’s money. Keiko is a distinctly cool yet self-assured figure, generating an instant connection with the affable gangster at once reassured by a sympathetic mama-san that Goro is good but also warned that he’s still a yakuza and as such no good for a smart young woman like her. Keiko thinks that Tokyo is pretentious and boring, confused by Goro’s insistence on getting back there but like him perhaps in waiting. “I love you to death” she later ironically confesses while simultaneously insisting that men and women are different. There is no escape for her. Goro is tired of running but refuses to be handcuffed, choosing perhaps the only path to freedom presented to him. 

A nihilistic tale of gangster ennui in which life itself no longer has value, Velvet Hustler is a curiously cheerful affair despite its essential melancholy, Goro and Keiko sparring in a romantic war of attrition while he almost flirts with the dogged detective (Tatsuya Fuji) determined to bring him down. The kitschy production design gives way to Antonioni-esque shots of a strangely empty city while an ethereal sequence of dissolves eventually leaves the pair alone on the dance floor as if to imply their single moment of romance is but a brief dream of emotional escape. The trappings of post-war success are everywhere from Keiko’s elegant outfits to the cute red sports car and the weird club where Goro dad dances in front of his minions, not so much older than them but clearly out of place in this distinctly unhip seaside bar, but finally all there is is a dead end and an infinite emptiness the embrace of which is, perhaps, the only viable path to freedom. 


3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.